From The Editor | January 31, 2024

Even Cables Are Beautiful: A Fascinating Journey Through The History Of Electronics

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor

GettyImages-1166419449 laptop and book vector

Inspired by a shorted tantalum capacitor, two engineers discovered a hidden world inside electronic components, displaying the accidental beauty of their intricate designs. Hours of polishing, cleaning, and photographing resistors, capacitors, and inductors have revealed a captivating aesthetic.

I was searching for something interesting to write about passive and control components and, let’s be honest, that’s a tough row to hoe. But hey, if you’ve got any ideas feel free to send them to me.

Anyway, I searched and searched and eventually came across a book released a little more than a year ago, Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components by Windell Oskay and Eric Schlaepfer.

According to the book’s site, Open Circuits is a photographic exploration of the beautiful design inside everyday electronics. Its stunning cross-section photography unlocks a hidden world full of elegance, subtle complexity, and wonder.

Honestly? That description does the book a disservice. So, let’s take a look at Open Circuits and the book’s arresting imagery that transforms more than 130 components into delightful works of art.

Hidden Beauty

The numerous internal components that make up everyday electronic devices are meticulously engineered to perform a specific function, without any intention of being seen. Take, for instance, a tantalum capacitor, “one of the most prevalent types of capacitors due to its much higher charge capacity than film or ceramic capacitors,” according to DERF Electronics.

Schlaepfer had a tantalum capacitor that had shorted out on a piece of test equipment and he wanted to know why. So, Schlaepfer did what any engineer would do: polish it down for a look inside.

According to IEEE Spectrum, “He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator … discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics.” Inspired, the two spent hours polishing, cleaning, and photographing electronic components.

“As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to ‘accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.’”

IEEE Spectrum goes on, writing what Schlaepfer and Oskay “found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.”

As you take a closer look at the insides of the components, you will gain knowledge about how they function and how they were produced, writes IEEE Spectrum. Open Circuits offers something for everyone to enjoy, whether you are an experienced electrical engineer, a hobbyist, or just someone who appreciates art and photography.

“See” The Book

Marc Verdiell is a tech executive in Silicon Valley with a Ph.D. in Opto-Electronics from the University of Paris. In 2009, he started building an R2-D2 robot just for fun and, six years later, became a volunteer at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, working on the IBM 1401 Restoration Team.

“My well-equipped basement lab, which was originally dedicated to serious startup development work, is now put to fun use for R2-D2 building, test equipment, and vintage computer restorations which serves as an outlet for my engineering passion since they don't let me turn the knobs in the lab at work anymore,” says Verdiell. “Under the pseudonym CuriousMarc, I make videos of these enginerding adventures on YouTube.”

CuriousMarc’s videos include Open Circuits: Eric cuts through electronic components and reveals their hidden inner beauty in which he and Schlaepfer show how the pictures included in Open Circuits were made.

In the video, Schlaepfer recounts the beginning of the project, saying, “It started as a repair project. I had a broken piece of test equipment, and during the troubleshooting process, I discovered that there was a tantalum capacitor that had failed in a short circuit. And so, I thought, ‘Well, why don't I try cutting it in half, to see if it looks different from a normal tantalum?’ I couldn't see a burn mark or anything that looked like a failure, but it looked really interesting inside, so I put the photo up on Twitter and everyone else thought it was interesting.”

That kicked everything off and Schlaepfer began cutting other components in half, posting pictures of them to Twitter as well. The cuts are made using “pretty rough grit” sandpaper though other methods including a low-speed diamond saw are used, too.

Verdiell’s video also shows how the images were taken, noting that focus stacking is used to obtain greater depth by taking several pictures of the component “by moving the camera a tiny amount each time, then combining the resulting pictures' sharpest regions in a final image. (Oskay) designed this robotic camera translator to move the camera precisely between each,” says Schlaepfer.

The Reviews Are In

“The pages of Open Circuits contain ample inspiration for both novices and grizzled veterans alike,” text writes bunnie : studios. “Having been in electronics for four decades, I sometimes worry I’m becoming numb and cynical as I watch the world’s landfills brim with cheap electronics, built without care and purchased (and disposed of) with even less thought.

“However, as I thumb through the pages of Open Circuits, that excitement, that awe which I felt as a youth when I traced my fingers along the outlines of the resistors and capacitors of my first computer returns to me.”

bunnie : studios also notes that nothing is too old-fashioned, too modern, or too fragile. They managed to cut a vacuum tube in half without shattering its thin glass envelope. On the other hand, if you've ever wondered what the motherboard of your smartphone looks like, they've also managed to slice straight through that.

“Even if you’re not a ‘hardware person,’ or even if you’re ‘not into tech,’ the images in Open Circuits are so captivating that they may just tempt you to learn a bit more about it,” concludes bunnie : studios. “Or, perhaps more importantly, a wayward young mind may be influenced to realize that hardware isn’t scary: it’s okay to peel back the covers and discover that the fruits of engineering are not merely functional, but also deeply aesthetic as well. I know that a younger version of me would have carried a copy of this book everywhere I went, poring over its pages at every chance.”

The Brains Behind The Book

Schlaepfer runs the popular engineering X (formerly Twitter) account @TubeTimeUS, where he posts cross-section photos, discusses retrocomputing and reverse engineering, and investigates engineering accidents. He’s also on Mastodon as @tubetime@mastodon.social.

Some of his better-known projects include the MOnSter 6502 (the world’s largest 6502 microprocessor, made out of individual transistors) and the Snark Barker (a retro recreation of the famous Sound Blaster sound card).

Oskay is the cofounder and CTO of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, which was recently acquired by Bantam Tools. A longtime photographer, he holds a B.A. in Physics and Mathematics from Lake Forest College and a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory.